My first lesson in GIS

My first lesson in GIS came from the back of an album cover

I can imagine one question runs through any persons mind once the decision is made to start a blog: “What do I say in my first blog post?” My goal for this blog is to talk about the use of GIS in urban and regional planning. I do not want to make it a personal/family blog, but a more personal and timely version of my business’s website.
So, where to start? Why not begin with my very first exposure to GIS and its application to planning. You might be surprised that this was through music. Back in 1978, I was an undergrad at a small NH liberal arts college, majoring in biology. My four years in NH opened my eyes to many new things, one of which was new wave/progressive rock. One of my favorite bands at the time was (and still is) Talking Heads. My favorite Talking Heads album, and the one that exposed me to GIS and the planning profession, is More Songs About Building and Food. The back side of that album shows a photo-mosaic of the United States made up of LandSAT images. The text on the inner sleeve describes it best:

More Songs About Buildings And Food back cover

The back cover is a reproduction of Portrait U.S.A., the first color photomosaic of the United States. It is made up of 569 photos taken from space by the LandSAT satellite. Each photo in the mosaic is made up of four separate photos of different parts of the light spectrum: Green, Red, and two different Infra-red regions. These light regions were chosen because they help bring out the differences in geographical forms and types of vegetation. Each image is made up of many scan lines, much like a T.V. picture… analog information is converted to digital information and then transmitted to various ground receiving stations. This information is then converted into a black-and-white picture corresponding to each spectral region. These can then be combined to make the color pictures that are used in this mosaic. In the version reproduced on the cover, the information from the green spectral region is printed as yellow, the red region is printed as magenta, and the infra-red region is printed as cyan. This is called a false color image. In this version vegetation appears as turquoise, rocks and soil appear as red, yellow, brown, and towns, roads, and water appear as black. Objects as small as 33 feet are visible on the LandSAT photos if the object is in contrast to its environment. The practical applications of the LandSAT photos are many, some of which are forest-fire damage, regional planning, assessment of land use: Which crops are being grown where, mapping of ice for shipping, mapping and detection of air and water pollution, and monitoring surface mining.
Portrait U.S.A. is copyrighted by the General Electric Co., 1976. It was produced by their Beltsville Photo Engineering Lab with the assistance of the National Geographic Society and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Not to be outdone by NASA, Talking Heads decided to take this concept one step farther, and put a photo-mosaic of the band on the front cover of the album, using 529 close-up Polaroid photos:

More Songs About Buildings And Food Front Cover

Of course great album cover art was never the sole focus of any band. The music mattered, too. And it was one of the songs on this album that really drove home, for me anyway, the importance of planning, and how it affects our everyday lives. It was overshadowed by the much more popular Take Me To The River (written by Al Green), but The Big Country (by David Byrne), was a much better song, fit the title of the album and the cover art, and as the final track, completed the entire album experience.
Many times, after sitting through a 2 hour meeting, presenting the results of a survey, a workshop meeting, a buildout analysis, or some other GIS analysis, I queue up this song, turn the volume up, and settle in for the long drive home. The lyrics are not a very positive commentary on our built environment. Actually, the opposite. The song asks the question “Why would anybody want to live the way we do?” I ask myself that same question all the time. What is it that keeps our elected officials from building places we would all love to live in? I don’t have the answer to that question, but for some reason, I get great satisfaction from the fact that one of my favorite bands asked the same thing, over 31 years ago, before I even knew what urban and regional planning was.

The Big Country Lyrics:

I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
Places to park by the factories and buildings.
Restaurants and bar for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.
I see the parkway that passes through them all.
And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I couldn’t live like that, no siree!
I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.
I couldn’t live there if you paid me to.
I guess it’s healthy, I guess the air is clean.
I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends.
Look at that kitchen and all of that food.
Look at them eat it guess it tastes real good.
They grow it in the farmlands
And they take it to the stores
They put it in the car trunk
And they bring it back home
And I say…
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I couldn’t live like that, no siree!
I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.
I’m tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
I’m tired of travelling, I want to be somewhere.
Its not even worth talking
About those people down there.
Goo goo ga ga ga
Goo goo ga ga ga

Reader Comments

  1. “The Big Country” is very moving and thought-provoking. To say it is “not very positive” is only scratching the surface of the contempt in Byrne’s voice. When he sings,
    “A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
    I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
    Places to park by the factories and buildings.
    Restaurants and bar for later in the evening.”
    he is painting the Pollyanna picture that he believes is the inspiration and driving force behind the fly-over country he is seeing. It is nowhere; he “wants to be *somewhere*.”
    Then he seems to be singing a goo-goo baby chant to the people in the simplistic worldview of the plastic houses and parking lots.
    I’ve lived on both coasts and in the middle of the US. I can’t say he is wrong.
    Good idea for a post on your blog.

  2. i was searching for an image of the back cover of more songs about buildings and food – just to show my gis class (really). and your site was first that popped up. awesome! i’ve always been struck too by the textured nature of the talking heads songs, especially at this point in their career – the way they layered rhythms…there’s an analogy to gis/rs in there somewhere.

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